Occupational Health News Roundup

At PBS Newhour, Aubrey Aden-Buie reports on the shipbuilders that receive billions in federal contracts despite histories of serious safety lapses. In a review of federal contracts, Aden-Buie and colleagues found that since 2008, the federal government has awarded more than $100 billion to companies with records of safety incidents that injured and killed workers.

In a transcript of the broadcast (which you can also watch at the link above), Aden-Buie interviews Martin Osborn, a welder at shipbuilder Austal USA in Alabama:

MARTIN OSBORN: I was up in a boom lift, as we call it, or a man lift, up in the air about 40 feet, cutting a lifting lug off the side of a module, and had a violent kickback. It kicked out of my hands and went across my left hand, cutting me pretty bad. I didn’t take my glove off, because, I knew if I did that, I would have blood everywhere.

AUBREY ADEN-BUIE: Before Osborn’s accident, Austal modified the Metabo grinder by replacing the standard disc with a sawtooth blade made by an outside company. This made the tool more versatile, able to cut through aluminum more quickly.

But the manufacturer of the grinder specifically warned against using these blades, saying they cause frequent kickback and loss of control.

MARTIN OSBORN: I have seen pictures of people getting cut in their face, in their necks, in their thighs. It’s the most dangerous tool I have ever put in my hands.

AUBREY ADEN-BUIE: Does Austal know that the tool is as dangerous as it is?

MARTIN OSBORN: Yes, ma’am, they do.

AUBREY ADEN-BUIE: Company e-mails among Austal’s managers obtained by Reveal show that, even before Osborn’s accident, they called the modification lethal, and the grinders an accident waiting to happen.

Yet, according to Osborn, Austal workers still use the grinder daily.

MARTIN OSBORN: I have had numerous supervisors tell me that, you know, if you don’t want to use the tool, go get a job at Burger King.

To read or view the full story, visit PBS Newshour.

In other news:

Texas Tribune: Andy Duehren reports that Texas legislators are considering a measure that would kill regulations in the capital city of Austin that expedite the permitting process for large construction projects that agree to pay construction workers a living wage, follow worker safety standards, and offer worker training and workers’ comp insurance. The measure being considered in the state legislature would accelerate permitting across the state, while prohibiting cities from enacting measures like the one in Austin. In particular, Republican state Rep. Paul Workman, who helped author the legislation, seems to dislike the Austin-based worker center, the Workers Defense Project, that helped craft the Austin regulations, calling the group a “union front.” Duehren writes: “Workman is one of many lawmakers who have received financial support from real estate and construction interests, according to the data from Texans for Public Justice. Gifts to lawmakers from those two industries totaled more than $23 million between 2013 and 2016, the group found.”

The Hill: Timothy Cama reports that congressional Democrats have introduced legislation that would ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos. That’s the same pesticide that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt decided not to ban, despite the recommendations of EPA’s scientific advisors. The pesticide was recently involved in sickening farmworkers in California, and research shows it can cause neurological problems in children and fetuses. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said of the legislation: “Administrator Pruitt may choose to put aside science, public health and environmental protection in favor of big chemical profits, but Congress should not.”

Bloomberg BNA: David McAfee reports that Chevron has settled with Cal/OSHA officials to pay more than $1 million in fines and make comprehensive safety changes at its refinery in Richmond, California, after a 2012 fire at the refinery sent a cloud of gas and smoke over the nearby community. Cal/OSHA issued 17 workplace safety and health violations following the incident. As part of the new agreement, Chevron will make safety upgrades to the refinery’s equipment, provide training in hazard recognition and continue working with the United Steelworkers. McAfee quoted Clyde Trombettas, statewide manager and policy adviser for Cal/OSHA’s process safety management unit: “The penalty, $1,010,000, was the highest penalty assessed on any employer in Cal/OSHA history, which I think is very significant.”

Reveal: Sinduja Rangarajan reports that the House Appropriations Committee has approved a budget amendment to defund an initiative designed to narrow wage disparities and that required some employers to disclose pay data by gender, race and job category. In particular, the House amendment would prohibit the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from using funds to collect such data. Among those opposing the initiative was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which argued that collecting such data was a burden for employers and that it would reveal sensitive information. Rangarajan reports: “The data would help the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission benchmark pay patterns within industries, occupations and localities and take a closer look at firms that fall outside those patterns, said Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president of workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years. Follow me on Twitter — @kkrisberg.